Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere has a vaunted history behind it. A history that portrays the hard work of a number of brave men and women who created the base for the organization and battled improbable odds for the protection of children. This is our story.
The Beginning – Crime without Borders
It was the late 1980s. The World War II had been over for just four decades. The world was starting to come out of its horrified daze from the destruction caused. Their Border controls for many countries around the world, which has been very tight during the war and shortly after, had started to loosen. People began traveling to different countries for pleasure once again. Most importantly they began traveling even further towards Asia, which only came to the notice most common people during the Second World War. Tourism began flourishing.
In the meantime, in the shadows of all the happiness and relief to be alive, criminals began to ply their trades. The higher controls and laws amongst the Western world after the war, made them even more aware of the lack of controls in the mostly naive Asian countries. Many criminal enterprises relocated to the Asian subcontinent and began to deal in drugs, sex, and illegal trades. Unfortunately, the weakest and vulnerable of the local communities fell prey to them. The victims included youth, women and (worst of all) very young children. These criminals targeted the incoming waves of tourists for their operations.
As tourism flourished in Asia, the tourists arrived with various purposes. While some visited the countries with the hopes of seeing a new lifestyle, and the marvels of the native culture and history; there were many who came with the thought of taking advantage of the criminal enterprises that had taken root there. Taking note of their intent, many local criminals too began catering to the illegal whims of the tourists – selling them drugs obtained from illegal means, priceless antiques stolen from their temples and museums, and children who had been trafficked from rural communities for the sex trade.
Penetrating the Darkness – The Research by ECTWT
In 1988, the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (ECTWT – formed in 1981 by three Christian organizations in response to churches and activists who took note of the rising child prostitution and expressed concern) realized that there was a strong interconnection between the growth of tourism in Asian countries, and the increasing numbers of children undergoing child sexual abuse and exploitation there. They wished to investigate it further and a research was planned to be conducted in Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand for two years from mid 1988 to 1990.
It was in this manner that the ECTWT Research Team Lead, June Rogers, met two key people who would change the history of child protection in Sri Lanka. In June 1988, she commissioned Shirley J S Peiris, who was the General Secretary of the National Christian Council, and Maureen Seneviratne, who was an investigative journalist and volunteer social worker, to conduct the research on the Sri Lankan end. The research mandate mentioned that they would have to collect data and document the effect of the tourism related sex industry that was becoming increasingly visible; and its effects on children, their families and the wider local communities.
One month after receiving their assignment, Shirley and Maureen were invited to a meeting in Bangkok, for all the stakeholders of the research, convened by the ECTWT Executive Secretary Dr Koson Srisang. There, they were further briefed on the situation and the dangers that children in Asia were facing. As such, they discussed and helped lay down the guidelines for the research. It also served as an excellent opportunity for Shirley and Maureen to get to know their counterparts from Philippines and Thailand.
On their return to Sri Lanka, the very first thing that Shirley did was to select two local child rights activists – Mohammed Mahuruf, who was working at Terre des Hommes at the time, and Manel Nanayakkara from YWCA – to form a working group. The group combed the brothels, entertainment centers, beaches, resorts, and many other tourism-centric locations for evidence of child sexual exploitation. It was a difficult task, for those were the times with the Sri Lankan Civil War occurring in full force in the northern part of the country, and a riot started by a political party – Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – happening in the Southern region. The working group faced much suspicion, resistance and outright hostility. However they persevered.
What they found shocked them. The group discovered that Sri Lankan children were being blatantly sold for sex by their parents, neighbors, and a number of criminal organizations. While it was very much visible, the local communities turned a blind eye to the happenings or even treated the victims – the children – as shameful and disgusting criminals who brought shame to their families or communities. Faced with hostility and humiliation from all sides, these children lost their will to live – either killing themselves or letting a haze of drugs and abuse overtake them.
Releasing the Findings – The Chiang Mai Conference
The two years leading to the end of the research was a very busy period. In 1989, the working group travelled to attend a mid-term consultation organized by the ECTWT Research Team for all three working groups. It was then that the monstrous extent of the problem, which was even more larger and multidimensional than expected, began to be seen.
The preliminary findings provided by the groups were turned into a 10 page statement and submitted by the project’s co-consultant Sudarat Srisang at the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. There she stressed the need for an international campaign to stop the slavery of children through tourism. As a result of her suggestion, a conference to disseminate the findings amongst a wider audience was planned.
In preparation for the conference, the Sri Lankan working group finalized their research study and submitted the first draft of the report in March 1990. From the 1st to the 5th May 1990, the conference took place in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand under the name, ‘Caught in Modern Slavery – An Ecumenical Consultation on Tourism and Child Prostitution’. Sri Lanka were allotted 7 spaces for their delegates. Therefore, the originally 4-person working group, added a carefully selected 5th member to their team of presenters. This person was Faith Abeyawardene from Redd Barna. In addition, they also invited Padma Ranasinghe – Commissioner of Probation and Childcare Services in Sri Lanka, and Leon Berenger – a well-known journalist, to the conference in order to create a better understanding amongst the government and the public.
The conference, that was held in a very simple YMCA auditorium in Chiang Mai, was attended by concerned social workers from various organizations and faith based groups from a number of countries, as well as the national working groups for the research from Thailand, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Represented among the 63 attendees were participants from Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
The five Sri Lankan members (including Faith) of the working group made their presentations, explaining the situation in Sri Lanka. Maureen, in particular, caught the attention of the audience when she expressed extreme shame and outrage over the atrocities committed against the children of Sri Lanka. The severity of the crimes being committed against these children were effectively brought to heart by the Sri Lankan working group, and appalled the participants due to the magnitude of children being lured, sold or trafficked into prostitution.
As a result of these presentations by all three working groups, the participants of the consultation resolved to launch an international campaign to stop child abuse and child sex tourism. A three member core team, consisting of Dr. Koson Srisang, Rev. Ron O’Grady, and Ms Sudarat Serewat-Srisang, was appointed to carry out the implementation of the campaign. Representatives from the three Asian countries, where the research was conducted, as well as some of the other countries to be part of the Steering Committee and spearhead the campaign in their country. Maureen Seneviratne, from the Sri Lankan Team, was nominated as a member of the committee.
The Steering Committee and the core team also had its first Executive Meeting, and as a result the ECPAT – End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism – network was born.
The Return to Sri Lanka and Putting Forth the Concept
At the end of the consultation the working group returned to Sri Lanka triumphantly. It was a great success for them, as they had been able to create a heavy impact on the participants of the event using their research findings and presentations. As a Sri Lankan governmental representative had also been present, they too were much more enlightened about the situation and the fact that Sri Lanka was not alone in facing this crisis. However, there was still a long way to go before the working group received full support to end these child crimes.
On their return the group actively became engaged in the initial stages of implementing the ECPAT campaign locally. They had several talks and discussions with the local child rights non-profits, activists, and a number of other organizations. After explaining the research findings and the outcome of the consultation in Chiang Mai, many of those who they spoke to expressed interest in joining with the campaign. As a result a Core Committee was formed to be the executive arm of the campaign.
PEaCE – The Story behind the Name
Shirley Peiris also suggested that they come up with an individual name for the Sri Lankan end of the ECPAT campaign. He suggested the name PEaCE, which would expand to Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere. The name, in spirit, meant to express the campaigns interest in creating a protective environment everywhere in Sri Lanka where children could be safe and happy. The acronym was selected in such a way to show the need for peace and equal rights offered for all children at a time when the country was immersed in civil war. As such the name received high praise and unanimous approval from the Core Committee.
The First Logo and the Main Focus of PEaCE
The Core Committee decided to use the same logo for PEaCE that the international ECPAT campaign was using. The logo was a broken lotus bud, a symbol of the fragility of a child victim of sexual violence.
The main focus of the PEaCE campaign was discussed among the committee members and then clearly stated to be the preventive aspect of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), with specific focus on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT).
PEaCE is registered as an NGO
As the initial working group put their plans into place and attempted to implement the campaign, they ran into several roadblocks. With the already inherent hostility and resistance amongst the community to accept that child sexual abuse was prevalent in Sri Lanka, the campaign faced difficulties in getting people involved in its initiatives due to a lack of official documentation.
Therefore, the Core Committee for PEaCE decided to register the campaign as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) of Sri Lanka. PEaCE was registered in mid 1991 as an NGO under the Voluntary Social Services Act No 31 created in 1980 as part of the Sri Lankan company governance laws. Maureen Seneviratne was registered as the first Founder/Chairman, while Shirley Peiris was assigned as the Secretary and Mohammed Mahuruf became the Treasurer for the Executive Committee of the organization.
The Struggle to bring about Awareness
Time passed. The work of PEaCE was a continuous uphill struggle. But the occasional bursts of success, like treasure found on a tough mountain climb, made it all worth it.
PEaCE members visited tourism-centric locations such as beaches, hotels, and holiday hotspots like Nuwara Eliya and Anuradhapura. They went to slums and rural communities. The took the time to do programs in schools and villages. And everywhere they went they spread awareness about the dangers that children face when they undergo child sexual exploitation. ‘Let them enjoy our country, not our children’, they told the people.
The organization had to face irate tourism workers who felt that admitting to the crimes that were being committed right under their nose was shameful. There were also those who were directly involved in child sexual exploitation themselves, and realized that their time of reckoning was close. They tried to cover it up by flying into a rage when PEaCE came over to do awareness programs, or by creating false rumors about PEaCE’s veracity. Some of law enforcement officers, themselves, were aware of the child crimes that were occurring, but ignored the for the sake of the ‘tourism growth’ or because they had no idea what to do about it.
Some of the poorest community members who lived in filthy slums and in dilapidated clapboard huts on beaches, were selling their children to tourists for money. This was a way of life for them. The few tens of dollars that it brought them, along with the occasional luxury goods that the children received from their abusers as ‘hush money’, was way above what they could ever dream of earning using normal avenues and the crude skills that they had. Normal meetings and programs were never going to work on them.
So PEaCE organized more persuasive programs for them. In one instance they selected a group of mothers from beach communities. Many of these women were covered in filth and worked as prostitutes. PEaCE gave them a small cake of soap and told them that they would get more benefits if they came to a meeting tomorrow after washing themselves with the soap. At the meeting, these women were given free food and given some basic advice for them and their children to lead a healthier life. A rewards system was also established. They would be given tasks such as giving baths to their children and bringing them to the next meeting, implementing a specific child protection advice at home, reporting any child sexual exploitation incidents to PEaCE etc. These tasks had specific home necessities as rewards, things like soap, rice, vegetables, clothes etc. In this manner, the women willingly learnt to protect their children from commercial child sexual exploitation. They also became one of PEaCE’s strongest advocating forces amongst the beach communities.
In a more hostile instance, PEaCE conducted a program for important tourism personnel alongside a foreign tourism organization. At that time PEaCE mentioned the enormity of the situation that was affecting Sri Lanka, and gave some of the statistics of children being abused in Tourism. The day after the event, the PEaCE office was visited by the Tourism Police who arrested the Chairman, Mohammed Mahuruf, on claims of slander. However, as all the statistics were fully proven and none of them were false, they were unable to make their claim stick and released him the next day. After that, the Tourism Ministry realized that they had a serious problem with child sexual exploitation on their hands and were more supportive of the actions taken by PEaCE.
These were just some of the trials that PEaCE faced and pushed through. The full amount of hardships are only known to the founding members who turned a country that had no solid laws against child abuse, and huge willful blindness towards crimes against children; into what it is today with stronger laws and awareness.
The Triumphs brought about by Effort
- 1991/1992 – The Plan of Action for Children of Sri Lanka and the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Ranasinghe Premadasa, the President at the time, ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in July 1991 and launched a Plan of Action for Children in October 1991. PEaCE met with the committee members responsible for the Plan and submitted a memorandum on the urgent need for legislation to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. As a result, PEaCE was given the opportunity to make recommendations on dealing with child sexual abuse victims at a National Symposium in 1992 to discuss the Plan of Action.
- 1994 – Acknowledgement from Chief Minister at the Western Provincial Council Meeting: In March 1994, Maureen Seneviratne the Co-Founder and Chairperson of PEaCE at the time was invited to speak in a Western Provincial Council Meeting about child sexual exploitation on the district level. At that time, Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was the Chief Minister for the Western Province, directly acknowledged PEaCE’s efforts to raise awareness and called upon Maureen to assist the Commissioner of Probation and Childcare Services in proposing an Action Program.
- 1994 – The Formation of the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children: Due to the intense lobbying by PEaCE for more focused law enforcement regarding child sexual abuse related crimes, the Sri Lanka Police Department established a separate section named the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children. The Bureau had help desks at each police station around the country and became responsible for recording complaints of domestic violence, sexual abuse rape, incest, and any other incidents of violence against children and women.
- 1995 – The Amendment of Sri Lanka’s Penal Code: In 1992, pressured by PEaCE’s relentless lobbying, along with the pressure created by other child rights and women’s rights organizations, the government decided to amend and restructure a number of pre-colonial provisions in Sri Lanka’s Penal Code of 1883. That same year a Monitoring Sub-Committee and a Technical Committee on Juvenile Justice were set up to review the existing laws for anomalies and deficiencies and to draft amendments as were necessary to comply with International laws that Sri Lanka had ratified. PEaCE Chairperson Maureen Seneviratne and PEaCE Attorney-at-law Arun Tampoe were invited to be part of the Technical Committee in 1992. In September 1995, Prof G L Peiris, who was the Minister of Justice at the time, presented an amendment to the Penal Code Ordinance No 2 of 1883. The amendment was based on the recommendations made by the Technical Committee. The child-focused Amendment Act 22 of 1995 focused on child sexual abuse, violence and maltreatment. It also spoke of new offenses, such as computer based offenses, and detailed mandatory minimum penalties against each offense.
- 1995 – Establishment of Task Force by the Ceylon Tourist Board: In 1995, Dharmasiri Senanayake – Minister of Media, Tourism and Aviation became concerned about the increasing antisocial activities that were linked to tourism and directed the Ceylon Tourist Board to appoint a high powered Task Force to study and report on the crimes that were being committed through tourism. He ordered to implement measures against the horrendous crimes of child sex tourism, trafficking of children and child sexual exploitation. When the Task Force was assembled, the PEaCE Chairperson Maureen Seneviratne, who was asked to be the Vice Chair for the Task Force, and Arun Tampoe, who was PEaCE’s Legal Consultant.
996 – Committee for the Followup Plan of Action after 1st International Stockholm Conference: PEaCE was invited and in attendance at the 1st International Stockholm Conference. A month after the conference; Lakshman Jayakody, Minister of Buddha Sasana, Cultural and Religious Affairs, chaired a meeting for governmental and nongovernmental delegates who adopted the Stockholm Declaration and Agenda for Action. A four member Committee formed by the Minister at this time to formulate a concrete plan of action, and PEaCE members Maureen Seneviratne and Arun Tampoe were part of it.
- 1996 – Presidential Task Force on the Prevention of Child Abuse: In December 1996, President Kumaratunga appointed a 16 member Presidential Committee to create an Action Plan for the Prevention of Child Abuse. Maureen Seneviratne and Arun Tampoe were part of the Committee, while one of the documents tabled at the inaugural meeting was a Research Study by PEaCE on Child Prostitution in Sri Lanka. After two years of work, the recommendations of the Committee were implemented in the form of legislation amendments: Penal Code (Amendment) Act No 29 of 1998, the Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Act No 28 of 1998, the Judicature (Amendment) Act No 27 of 1998 and Evidence (Special Provision) Act No 32 of 1999.
- 1997-1998 – Presidential Task Force on Child Protection and Setting up of the NCPA: PEaCE was part of a Presidential Task Force in 1997 to do interventions and programs on child protection nationally. It was also due to the recommendation of the Task Force that the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) was set up in 1999. The National Child Protection Authority Act No 50 of 1998 was a key achievement of the Task Force. Maureen Seneviratne, Chairperson of PEaCE at the time, became one of the Directors of the NCPA on the inaugural Board of Directors, and gave PEaCE the honor of being the first NGO in Sri Lanka to be part of the Board of Directors in a state organization.
- 2006 – Zero Tolerance for Child Sex Tourism in CSri Lanka: A 2 year National Plan was launched under the name ‘Zero Tolerance for Child Sex Tourism in Sri Lanka’ to combat child sex tourism. Due to the immense efforts made by PEaCE to prevent Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT), they were invited to serve on the Steering Committee
- 2010 – Blocking of pornographic sites on mobile phones: Due to the interventions made by PEaCE to end Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, the Colombo Juvenile Court made an order to the Sri Lanka telecommunications Regulatory Commission to ban and block mobile phone access to over 970 pornographic websites.
- 2012 – PEaCE/ECPAT Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review and Shadow Report: PEaCE made a joint submission for the Universal Periodic Review and Shadow Report with ECPAT International in order to provide an unbiased opinion on the situation of child protection in Sri Lanka at the time. The report was accepted and taken forth.
- 2016 – The 25th Anniversary of PEaCE: The long quarter century history of PEaCE was celebrated in 2016 with the release of a book, ‘PEaCE at 25 – Celebrations and Reflections’. The release took place at a special program organized by PEaCE with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike as the Chief Guest.
- 2017 – The National Consultation on Advancing Responsible Business Practices for Child Protection from Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT):The National Consultation was organized in December 2017 at Galadari, by PEaCE in collaboration with ECPAT International. It was attended by Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), International Labour Organization, SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SAARC CCI), the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, SriLankan Airlines and other key industry stakeholders. The Consultation resulted in a commitment by all the agencies present to work towards the elimination of SECTT and identified tangible ways in which to work towards this end. The consultation was a huge success and became a model continues to be followed by ECPAT organizations in the network.
- 2018 – The launch of the national-level PEaCE project to End Sexual Exploitation Online: PEaCE obtained a 2 year grant from the UK Government through The Fund, beating thousands of proposals from around the world. The project which targets the entire nation was launched on the 1st August 2018. The project aims to strengthen Sri Lanka’s protection mechanisms against Child Sexual Exploitation Online and provide better awareness to the public.
PEaCE Now – Changes in the Organization
In 2010, Maureen Seneviratne retired from her position as Chairperson; and Mohammed Mahuruf, the youngest of the Founders, became the new Chairman in November 2010. Immediately after taking his position he did a restructuring of the organization to make it more cost-effective and organized. He also introduced a low paper-use policy for environmental protection.
As the ECPAT logo of a broken lotus bud had been changed to the logo of a child holding a flower, the PEaCE logo too lost its connection to the original. Therefore, in 2016 the Chairman decided to redo the logo, and the new PEaCE logo was that of two children being protected in a circle made by two hands – showing the concept of PEaCE as a child protection organization.
In the meantime, the other Founders of PEaCE (who had already been middle aged or older at the time of the creation of the organization), passed away between the years of 2010 to 2018, leaving the current Chairman as the sole surviving founder.
In mid 2018, PEaCE underwent a massive growth from 8 full-time staff members to double that amount, due to the new nationwide PEaCE project.
Today the organization continues to do many programs to raise awareness against child sexual abuse and exploitation and change Sri Lanka’s Child Protection mechanisms for the better.